Benjamin Joffe-Walt / The Media Line , THE JERUSALEM POST
This is the latest word from a Gazan rights group, which is demanding that the Hamas government take steps to protect workers digging smuggling tunnels under the border between Egypt and the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave.
The call comes after another two men died while working in the tunnels, one from an electric shock and another from suffocation, after a tunnel collapsed on him.
Mohammed Baraka, 23, was killed by an electric shock while working in a tunnel Sunday afternoon. Earlier that day, Ahmed Salah Abdeen, 35, suffocated to death inside a tunnel that collapsed under the As-Salam neighborhood of the Palestinian town of Rafah. Another worker sustained serious injuries in the incident and later that day, in a third incident, two additional workers were hospitalized after paint thinner leaked inside a tunnel they were working in.
"Our research on the ground has shown that after these incidents a total of 120 people have died in tunnel collapses," Samir Zaqout, Field Work Coordinator for the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, told The Media Line. "Another seven were killed inside tunnels as a result of Israeli aerial attacks."
Of the 120 deaths, four were children and 59 were killed since the beginning of 2009. A further 250 people have been injured while working in the smuggling tunnels over the last few years.
"No one cares about what happens in the tunnels," Zaquot said. "The government here in Gaza just wants to make money off the tunnel owners and that's it. They take money from the people but do not provide any services to them. They don't care about the conditions for the workers, whether or not it's safe or the quality of the goods coming in from Egypt."
"Most of the people who work in tunnels are from very poor backgrounds and have been forced to undertake this kind of work to provide for their families under the difficult socio-economic conditions caused by the Israeli siege on Gaza," Al-Mezan said in a statement, accusing Israel's closure of the Gaza Strip of driving the tunnel industry. "As tunnels represent an inevitable alternative for society to attempt to deal with the impact of the Israeli siege, Al-Mezan expects the Government in Gaza to monitor and regulate this industry... The tunnels' catastrophe must end."
The government vehemently denies any responsibility for the deaths.
"We are trying to decrease the safety problems by talking with the people who are working in these tunnels and asking them not to use children and to take all safety precautions possible," Ihab A-Ghu'sein, a spokesperson for the Hamas government's Interior Ministry told The Media Line.
"The responsibility for these dead people is with those who have imposed the siege and occupation," he said. "For now, these tunnels help the people and this is their only way to mitigate this crises, but they don't have advanced techniques for tunnel building. When the siege is lifted there will be no need for these tunnels in the first place."
Al-Mezan's Zaquot said that beyond worker safety, the government should also monitor the quality of the goods being smuggled in from Egypt.
"The facts on the ground are that with the exception of gasoline, very little quality products are coming from Egypt," he claimed. "For example, all the biscuits are dry, discoloured and fall apart and the Coca Cola we get comes in metal tanks and has a very odd color. Basically all the materials coming in from Egypt are trash that the Egyptians don't want."